One of the most compelling stories this week in Atlanta involves a 38-year-old quarterback who finally has made it to the Super Bowl after a career of painful disappointments. He doesn’t play for either team, but Tony Romo will send tremors through Twitter practically every time he speaks Sunday.
During the AFC championship game earlier this month, CBS’s top football analyst burnished an already sparkling reputation when he correctly predicted a series of plays — blitzes by the defense, which receivers quarterback Tom Brady would throw to — in the second half of the New England Patriots’ victory over the Kansas Chiefs.
Romo’s partner in the booth, the veteran Jim Nantz, fondly dubbed him “Romostradamus.” “Brady’s seeing what you’re seeing,” Nantz said, sounding somewhat in awe.
In the aftermath, Romo has been called a “football genius” by The New Yorker; others have asked if he’s already the best analyst in sports. Free agent baseball star Bryce Harper described Romo as “a wizard” and joked that he “just called Tony Romo to see where I’m going to play next year.” The Wall Street Journal analyzed every game Romo called this season, and found he had a 68 percent rate on his predictions.
Meanwhile, the rest of the sports broadcasting world has been paying attention to its newest attraction.
“As an announcer you say things like, ‘The ball’s going inside here’ — and sometimes you get lucky and you’re right,” said Dick Vitale, a college basketball analyst for ESPN and one of the best-known color voices in sports. “When it’s right you feel like a million dollars. But what Tony did in that environment in such a major moment, I mean that was just captivating to so many people.”
Romo’s star turn in the broadcast booth comes after an NFL career that was both remarkable — he played 13 seasons as an undrafted free agent out of Eastern Illinois — and, at least in some ways, disappointing. Despite making four Pro Bowls while playing for a flagship franchise, Romo had a 2-4 playoff record, and never sniffed a Super Bowl. During his playing career, he was perhaps best-known for famously botching a hold on a field goal in a playoff game and dating pop star Jessica Simpson. When Romo retired in 2017, NFL.com named the news conference where he graciously handed off the Cowboys quarterback job to Dak Prescott as his most memorable career moment.
Immediately afterward, he was anointed CBS’s top analyst. Two years into the role, Romo is garnering the kind of attention not seen for an NFL color analyst since John Madden. Romo is, in so many ways, everything the NFL isn’t: If the league can be self-serious, overly corporate and buttoned up, Romo is spontaneous in the booth, freewheeling and joyous.
“Oh my gosh, Jim, Tom Brady has the ball at the 35 to go to the Super Bowl!” Romo squealed in delight late in the Patriots-Chiefs game.
“He has a twinkle in his eye and there is a boyish excitement,” said Bob Costas, the former NBC broadcasting legend.
In the canon of Hall-of-Fame caliber announcers — think of Howard Cosell, Ernie Harwell and Vin Scully — most have been best known for their play-by-play, not their analysis. And few become cultural touchstones. Chicago Cubs broadcaster Harry Caray sang the seventh-inning stretch and was spoofed on “Saturday Night Live.” Milwaukee Brewers announcer Bob Uecker starred in “Major League.”
Then, of course, there is Madden. The former Oakland Raiders coach retired in 1978; before he joined CBS, Madden taught a class on football at the University of California that laid the groundwork for his professorial but approachable style (and later for an iconic video game).
On TV, Madden mastered the telestrator and explained things like the nickel defense and the ins and outs of the offensive and defensive lines. But he was also full of quirks; when a field was muddy he told viewers they could know which players were running faster by how high they kicked up dirt onto their pants. In a world where so many announcers spoke in generalities — “They need to stop the run” — Madden seemed to elevate the very craft. “Madden’s true legacy is as one of the sporting world’s premier public intellectuals,” wrote Bryan Curtis in Play Magazine.
Romo has seemingly taken the next step up the evolutionary depth chart, by not just explaining the X’s and O’s, but telling viewers what is about to happen.
“There’s no plan of doing it at all,” Romo said. “Sometimes you just get passionate and you get excited and in the moment you start, you know, just really talking out loud what’s going through your brain. Sometimes you see a lot of stuff and then you just try and articulate that to the people who are watching.”
Added Nantz: “This is the testament to years and years of his work and preparation. He’s not guessing. He’s not getting some sort of message from the gods.”
Romo’s technical knowledge is certainly aided by the fact that he was so recently a quarterback in the league. When he meets with coaches and players in the lead-up to games, he has often played with them or against them. The formations and schemes they discuss are the same he watched in his own game film just a couple years ago.
Still, several announcers around sports said there was more to Romo’s buzz than just prognostication.
Vitale: “We have an epidemic out there. A lot of guys X-and-O people to death. People are bored. But Tony entertains. He’s got enthusiasm and energy, you can feel he loves every play. He wishes he was under center. That’s what made Madden great, too.”
Legendary baseball broadcaster Ken “Hawk” Harrelson: “I like a bold guy. He’s going out on a limb, which tells you he’s not scared. But I also like Tony because he connects to fans. When an umpire blew a call, I got pissed, just like you sitting at home. He gets excited the way fans do."
Bill Raftery, the lead color commentator for college basketball on CBS: “It sounds philosophical, but he’s a country kind of relaxed. In the booth you are who you were raised as, what your family was like, who you palled around with. I think it embodies the whole person."
The Romo-mania is in some ways reminiscent of the gushing reaction to Johnny Weir and Tara Lipinski, who called figure skating for NBC at the 2014 Olympics in Sochi. The duo blended biting wit and effervescent fashion with sound analysis and uproarious fun. In an age of instant feedback, they were on TV for barely a day before the reviews were in.
“My mother called me and said the New York Times thought we should be the lead team in prime time and I was like, ‘No way,’” Weir said. “It happened really fast. We had the hair and the fashion and the full sensory overload, but we also understood — in this age of Twitter and social media — that you have to know what people are looking for."
In that vein, Romo has set a high bar for himself heading into the Super Bowl. He trended on social media and was showered with praise after his last game. As Vitale said, “People will be counting, ‘He’s right on this play, he’s wrong on that one. He’s 0-for-3, 2-for-4,’ but I think he can live with that.”
Costas said part of the infatuation with Romo was also due to his novelty — he is still so new to the booth — and predicted that it would get more difficult to predict plays with such regularity the further removed Romo is from his own career. But because of the response he’s elicited, Costas also suggested the next wave of announcers will likely look to emulate Romo’s example. “People are going to be saying, ‘Let’s go find the next Romo,’” he said. “But it’s not that easy.”
Dan Fouts, another CBS football analyst, hoped that the interest in Romo might spur networks to beef up more of their production teams with the resources usually reserved for the top pair, including extra help in the production truck to aid broadcasters during the games. “Hopefully they say the investment is worth it for everyone, they can raise the bar for everyone that way,” he said.
As for whether future broadcast booths will be full of Romo-clones, Fouts also believes that’s tricky.
“When I got hired, the bosses told me to be John Madden,” he said. “But also be myself.”
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